Cisco Systems (NASDAQ: CSCO) CEO John Chambers threw down the gauntlet this evening, predicting the networking company will lead the shift to software defined data centers -- a hot topic as Cisco strives to balance relationships with VMware, EMC, NetApp, IBM, Intel, Citrix and Microsoft. During Cisco's Q4 2012 earnings call, Chambers gave three reasons why Cisco and its channel partners will have the right data center software strategy. Here they are.

Oh, but first let The VAR Guy paint the picture:
Chambers, in prepared comments, stoked the competitive fires today without initially mentioning VMware and upstarts by name. Instead, he stated:
"An area that many of you’ve asked us to discuss is our view and the focus on software defined data centers and specifically the effect on our strategy as it relates to networking. Our major discussion is around evolving networks to be more programmable, more virtual and more flexible. Make no mistake about it, our goal is to lead this evolution along with our partners and I would point to three advantages that we have in this marketplace."

Chambers' Three Points

What are those three reasons? Chambers mentioned...

1. Evolutionary end-to-end solutions: Cisco can deliver an evolutionary, comprehensive approach that allows customers to have consistent experience, policy, quality of service, security and mobility -- while also meeting total cost of ownership, reliability and scalability requirements, he said.

2. Complete Framework called Cisco ONE: Here, Chambers mentioned the need for network virtualization and an initial set of techniques under the Cisco open network environment umbrella called Cisco ONE.

3. Cisco's Global Nexus Experience: The company's global market presence allowed Cisco to pioneered network virtualization in 2009, he said, when the company introduced the Nexus 1000V. Chambers called it the first virtualized switch.

Then, Chambers took a shot at potential emerging rivals: "Today, while startups in this space can generally count their production customers on at most two hands, Cisco has more than 6,000 Nexus 1000V production customers using the distributed virtual networks to deliver highly secure, multi-tenant data center environment."

Thinly Veiled Attack?

Was Cisco taking a shot at Nicira, which VMware just acquired? Before most people even noticed the comment, Chambers tactfully and quickly shifted the conversation back to existing data center partners -- including VMware.

"We have been driving the future of the data center for a number of years now, together with our strategic partners whether it is EMC, VMware, Microsoft, IBM, NetApp, Citrix, Intel and many others, our open approach is driving innovation and unique customer value," he said.

Chambers further softened his statements by saying the software defined data center market will take years to play out and will involve many partners. And he noted that VCE -- the company Cisco launched with EMC and VMware -- continues to grow fast.

He said:
"Momentum with VCE continues to be very strong. we saw continued traction in enterprise data centers and cloud service providers, both with new customers and existing customers going to our footprint. With strong demand growth in the second quarter, VCE continues to achieve our expectation that again, is our partnership with VMware and EMC with order growth in the most recent quarter of approximately 58% year-over-year."

Cooperating and Competing

Still, The VAR Guy believes Chambers sees VMware as both a friend and foe. And Chambers essentially confirmed that point later in the earnings call, when he answered questions about VCE and potential VMware competition.

To be sure, Cisco has a growing presence in the data center market. For its Q4 2012, Cisco's overall data center revenue grew 42% from Q3, with year-over-year UCS (Unified Compute System) order growth that is booking growing 58 percent.

Concluded Chambers: "Our ability to move first in this market transition to unified compute, storage and networking and deliver on long-term ongoing innovation around unified fabric, unified compute and unified management has helped solidify our position as a leader in the next generation data centers."

And those next generation data centers, apparently, will be defined by software...